In his article published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine on June 7, Ben Caspit
attempts to give a voice to the veteran Israeli residents of south Tel Aviv,
describing an environment of overcrowded housing and insufficient infrastructure
that has deteriorated into crime, fear and decay.
“Hell on earth,” he
names it. But rather than recognize the root of the problem – the absence of
government policy visà- vis all of the vulnerable populations living in the
area, he blames and stigmatizes the weakest population group in Israel – people
with no status, no rights, who sought the promised land as a haven from their
Natasha Roth and Leah McDonnell, in their thoughtful and well
researched response to the article, published in +972, rightly point out that
many of Caspit’s claims and assumptions are wildly contrary to fact. While we
may expect more from a journalist, his attitude is not surprising, as it gives
expression, albeit in an extreme manner, to widespread feelings toward refugees
in Israel today.
A recent study published in The Jerusalem Post
that 59.9 percent of Israelis believe the refugee community is dangerous for
Israeli society and 68.8% believe that refugees are a burden on the Israeli
economy. This despite the fact that crime rates are lower among foreigners in
Israel than among the general population and refugees hold jobs that Israelis
don’t want – jobs that Israel willingly imports thousands of foreign migrant
workers every year to hold.
The feelings of fear and deep frustration of
those who live in south Tel Aviv should by no means be dismissed.
is genuine and the reasons behind it often justified. Nor should one enter into
discussion of who perpetuates more violence against whom. That would miss the
point. The residents of south Tel Aviv, like so many others, are made to bear
the brunt of the absence of government policy on immigration.
should be noted that the extreme “reality” Caspit describes is far from that
experienced every day by those who live and work in south Tel Aviv – an area
composed of a number of smaller neighborhoods that are disadvantaged but do
continue to function.
Caspit’s unequivocal reaction of shock is just
indicative of the perspective of an outsider looking in, perhaps expressing
personal nostalgia vis-à-vis the changes undergone by Naveh Sha’anan since the
time it was just a poor, neglected and crime-ridden but entirely Israeli
Though the general atmosphere in the neighborhood has
deteriorated due to overcrowding, inadequate infrastructure and the
unplanned-for meeting of populations that do not know or understand each other,
the neighborhood is no more dangerous and threatening than other very vulnerable
neighborhoods of Israel’s geographical or social periphery where unemployed men
have taken over the public space and wait for menial work-opportunities that are
unlikely to be handed to them.
What is certain is that those Caspit
refers to as mistanenei avoda (work infiltrators) – a new term apparently coined
by the journalist himself to further remove them from the scope of Israeli
public solicitude – are not given a face or voice.
The Africans of south
Tel Aviv are described as a mass of threatening, undifferentiated figures that
have turned into the “sovereign” “occupiers” of the area.
Among the dozen
interviewees mentioned in the article, not one is a refugee.
opportunity is given for an asylum seeker to let the reader understand why and
under what circumstances they came to Israel, or how hard they must work to
survive the harsh reality of living in a democratic country with no real status,
without rights and without access to even basic services. Nor does Caspit give
voice to the fact that despite their struggles, most of the Africans that
crossed the Sinai border into the country since the mid-2000s are grateful to
have arrived in Israel, to relative safety and security and the hope of an end
to arbitrary persecution.
ASYLUM SEEKERS in Israel live in a perpetual
paradox that is largely the result of Israeli authorities’ inability – or
unwillingness – to formulate clear and consistent guidelines on migration and
asylum. In order to claim asylum, asylum seekers must cross the border, but if
they cross the border they are labeled “infiltrators” – a criminal offense
according to the latest permutation of Israel’s Anti-Infiltration Law.
order to gain refugee status, their claims must be assessed, but with rare
exceptions they are not given access to the process that would assess the
validity of their claims. For asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea (some 90% of
African asylum seekers in Israel), a Foreign Ministry unofficial decision to
grant them “group protection” for now prevents their deportation, yet this
“protection” denies them the rights granted to recognized refugees. This legal
limbo prevents any alternative solution; without a recognized status, they are
stuck here – they cannot apply for asylum in a third country, cannot be returned
by the state to their homes. While they are stuck here, they need to survive,
but the government does not provide for them and threatens employers with
sanctions if they employ asylum seekers. The High Court of Justice ruled that
the ad hoc threemonth “conditional release” visa that most receive from the
Interior Ministry allows asylum seekers to work de facto, but the ministry
continues to stamp their visa papers with a dissuasive “this is not a work
visa.” As a result, many employers will not employ them, or will do so only
under precarious and minimal (sometimes illegal) conditions. Some, seeking a
stable income, want to open businesses to support themselves and their families
and to provide a service to the larger circles of compatriots.
migrant communities all over the world, they want to eat the food they grew up
with, watch movies in their language, and have their hair cut by people who know
how. But most cannot legally open a business because their status has never been
assessed or regularized.
The few that have obtained proper work permits
(about 1 percent of Africans in Israel) and tried to build independent
businesses are constantly harassed by the authorities or face administrative
obstacles with no surmountable route out. And the paradox
Despite finding themselves in a limbo of contradictions, most
refugees do what they can to eke out a living while patiently putting up with
the convolutions of Israeli bureaucracy. Impelled to live in survival mode by a
country that refuses to understand who they are and where they have come from,
they put off dealing with the traumas of war, displacement, loss, torture and
rape that have been their lot before crossing the border into the promised
Contrary to the impression that is created in Caspit’s article,
they are eager to live under the protection and within the framework of Israel’s
laws. Even more so, they seek to interact with Israelis, to learn about Israeli
culture, Israeli democracy, and frequently express respect for Israel as a
country that was built by (Jewish) refugees for (Jewish) refugees.
are inspired by the resilience of the Jewish people and see Israel as the
realization of a dream they themselves hold. As the only democracy in an ocean
of authoritarian and arbitrary regimes, Israel is seen as a haven of freedom and
protection from harassment by the rule of law. Only one who has lived without an
accountable justice system – they say – can truly appreciate its value. In this
light, their exclusion from the regulated legal system is all the more
The largest part of the population of asylum seekers are
relatively young and capable, and many of them have skills and an education that
could be an asset rather than a burden for south Tel Aviv. Many asylum seekers
have learned Hebrew remarkably well with the aim of working and become
self-sustaining while integrating as best they can during their time in this
country. Others work on their English or learn other skills with a hope for a
productive future back in their countries once safety and peace return
The few asylum seekers who have managed, primarily through
partnership with Israelis, to open businesses – restaurants, Internet cafes,
clothing stores, hairdressers, small grocery stores – act as forums for
community dialogue and provide important services to the weakest members of
Even with their limited resources, there is a concern
for community well-being that runs contrary to the harsh and negative picture
painted by Caspit.
The saddest irony is that up until recently Israel’s
attitude to refugees told a different story. Israel played a major role in the
drafting of the UN refugee convention, ensuring that its beneficiaries would be
guaranteed protection and dignity. Israel was among the first to sign the 1951
Convention and the 1967 Protocol which extended the original Convention to
respond to future conflicts around the world. Israel was a leader in refugee law
in part because it knew that had the world reacted differently to Jewish
refugees fleeing Nazi Europe, millions of lives could have been saved. Prime
minister Menachem Begin put it succinctly: “We never have forgotten the boat
with 900 Jews, the St. Louis, having left Germany in the last weeks before the
Second World War... traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country,
crying out for refuge.
They were refused... Therefore it was natural...
to give those people a haven in the Land of Israel.”
Begin was responding
to the plight of Vietnamese refugees, and led the world in granting them safe
haven and citizenship.
Over the years, similar responsibility was taken
by the Jewish state for refugees hailing from Bosnia, Lebanon and a number of
YET TODAY, this same plight, met by a similar response
by groups of concerned Israelis, brings accusations of post-Zionism or
attempting to dismantle the Jewish state. Rather than recognize the suffering of
African asylum seekers, Israeli authorities look the other way and hope that the
problems produced by an absence of policy will just go away. With the fence
through the Sinai inhibiting future arrivals, policies of “deterrence” enacted
on refugees within Israel’s borders are unnecessary. It is time that Israel
honor its commitments to ensure the safety and well-being of all those that live
on its territory.
Little will change for African asylum seekers in south
Tel Aviv and for their Israeli neighbors without government cooperation and
middle-to-long-term intervention. Even if some of the announced government plans
to “resettle” refugees in other African countries were to be practically and
decently implemented, a significant proportion of those that are already here
can expect to remain in Israel for a number of years to come.
government, in coordination with municipalities concerned and international
humanitarian organizations, needs to put forward constructive measures that will
make the situation of refugees in Israel livable. Simply granting temporary but
official status to asylum seekers would make a world of
Having their right to work formally recognized would enable
refugees to seek work across the country, reducing the pressure on south Tel
Aviv. Having a stable, recognized income would lead to the payment of income
tax, social security and health insurance, easing the burden on emergency
Able to legally open businesses, refugees would learn to comply
with Israeli law. When the situation in their home country stabilizes and
becomes safe, these people could return to their countries – a desire they
readily and constantly express – and be Israel’s greatest
Until this happens, Israel’s commitments to human dignity as
expressed in Jewish tradition are being honored by Israeli NGOs – almost all of
which are headquartered in south Tel Aviv, and thereby have direct contact and
experience with the field – and thousands of individual Israelis who volunteer
their time and represent the best of Israeli society. By providing basic
healthcare, social and psychological assistance, education, respectful work and
learning opportunities and guidance to better understand the complexities of the
society they find themselves in, these NGOs and the volunteers they depend on
are giving refugees a glimpse of why the random choice of Israel as a place of
refuge may ultimately turn out to have been a good one.
Were Israel to
harness the potential for dialogue and understanding among veteran Israelis,
migrant workers and refugees rather than suppress and prosecute it, the entirety
of Israeli society, south Tel Aviv in particular, would benefit.
moving beyond the increased tension that is tangible on the streets of south Tel
Aviv, some gestures of goodwill have resulted in budding understanding and a
measure of cooperation between Israeli old-timers residing in south Tel Aviv and
their migrant neighbors, indicating that the situation can be managed for the
benefit of all. Jean-Marc Liling, an Israeli lawyer advising NGOs and
non-profits, is a member of the board of directors of ASSAF (Aid organization
Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel), that, among other things, provides
psycho- social assistance to refugees in Israel.
Ilana Pinshaw is the
coordinator of Microfy, an NGO based in south Tel Aviv that provides training,
loans and consultancy to asylum-seeker entrepreneurs to enable them to become
economically independent and support themselves and their families.